If we are to believe Mojo Nixon, Elvis is everywhere, Elvis is everything, Elvis is everybody and Elvis is still the King. Of rock ‘n’ roll, of course, but also of kitsch.
Most people older than 25 are familiar with the image of the young, hip-shakin’ fresh-faced rocker who sang classics such as Blue Suede Shoes.
Perhaps even more might recognise the King from his performances in a succession of corny films made throughout the 60s that turn up occasionally on weekend afternoon TV.
Yet perhaps the enduring image is one of a corpulent, excellently coiffured cabaret performer bedecked in strange, jewel-encrusted white jumpsuits who belts out pop numbers with the backing of an enormous orchestra while alternatively executing karate moves and dispensing sweat-drenched souvenir scarves to his adoring acolytes.
On the one hand there remains today a legion of serious-minded followers dedicated to the preservation of Elvis Presley and his place in the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon.
At the same time, perhaps more potent is the notion of Elvis that critic Greil Marcus, author of Dead Elvis – A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession, describes as a collective joke.
Marcus notes that Elvis manifestations have grown more perverse and extreme since his death. Hence in True Romance Christian Slater is inspired by an image of the King to wreak havoc on a room full of mobsters, or elsewhere a raft of flying Elvises is shown jumping out of a plane in Honeymoon in Vegas.
Elvis has been depicted in The Simpsons (shooting a television) and The Twilight Zone.
There is a Mexican Elvis impersonator, El Vez, and at least one female one, Elvis Herselvis.
Stranger still must have been the one-man play, Him, written and performed by Christopher Walken in which Elvis fakes his death, undergoes a sex-change operation and ends up working as a waitress in a diner.
It is Elvis as pisstake, as punch line or fancy-dress costume.
As critic Terrence Rafferty has noted, Elvis was King in pre-ironic times, or at least a period in which irony wasn’t the sole measure of intelligence or artistic value.
Now it’s almost impossible, for non-fans anyway, to view Elvis without irony, or worse, contempt.
For the most part I’ve wanted it both ways, very much appreciating Elvis’ music but also delighting in his strange arcana – the King was a sleepwalker!
That’s why my reaction to a recent Elvis double bill was surprising.
I very much enjoyed the first flick, Viva Las Vegas. It’s silly, yes, but I found myself laughing with the movie more than at it, except in one or two scenes where for instance, love interest Rusty (Ann-Margaret) is shown riding her motor bike while standing.
And there was nary a titter from an obviously respectful audience that filled Melbourne’s Astor Theatre on closing night of the film’s run.
To see the King rehearsing and then performing his Vegas shows in Elvis: That’s the Way It Is is to witness the phenomenon just before the drugs and awful diet really kicked in and everything – career, life, body – went pear-shaped.
When the Big E, with his band and some seriously affroed backing singers cranked out Suspicious Minds I actually felt shivers down my spine, a feeling I haven’t felt at the movies since I don’t know when.
Of course, the movie finished and I left the building feeling confused but also grateful, thinking, Thank you, Elvis. Thank you very much.
This article first appeared in issue 28 of Australian Screen Education.